He's been attacked on Twitter by his country's leading right-wing populist politicians—and they've proposed laws in response to his cultural rise. His identity as a European and Italian has been called into question because he's the son of an Egyptian immigrant. He has no use for heteronormativity despite the Italian gossip rags' attempts to pry into his personal life. His songs have more in common with Frank Ocean or Drake than they do Andrea Boccelli or ABBA. He may be the most buzzed about entrant to Eurovision, European's most-watched non-sporting event, in years, despite the fact that he embodies none of the novelty-act cheese or bland power balladry Americans automatically associate with the event. His name is Mahmood, and even if he doesn't win the contest, he appears to have already won.
Mahmood's "Soldi," a hypnotic trap song with elements of traditional Arabic music and Italian balladry that manages to rhyme "Jackie Chan" with "Ramadan," has already been picked as the favorite by an influential Eurovision super-fan poll. It's been streamed almost 40 million times on Spotify, almost 25 million more times than any other song in the contest. The official Italian YouTube upload of the video just surpassed 80 million views. There're now six official remixes featuring several notable European stars and DJs. Though Mahmood (born Alessandro Mahmoud) is expected to place high on the dais when all is said and done, Eurovision experts note that the only thing keeping him from an outright victory may be the fact that the song and his scheduled, stripped-down performance of it on Saturday night in Tel Aviv are just so antithetical to the camp pageantry people expect out of Eurovision.
Despite his current golden position, Mahmood's road to Eurovision actually began with controversy. If you're not familiar, Eurovision asks countries represented in the European Broadcasting Union to send entrants to a song competition that now extends beyond Europe (Australia, for example, has participated for the past few years). Each country's selection process varies, but Italy's is notable because its competition not only predates Eurovision itself by five years, but is indeed what the entire competition is based on.
Mahmood entered this year's contest with a thin musical resumé. He had appeared years before as a contestant on Italian X-Factor, but was dispatched early in the competition; instead of capitalizing immediately on his 15 minutes, he decided to study music theory in school in order to learn to write his own songs. He finished in the top four in 2016 at Sanremo's separate "Newcomers" category, but had only truly launched his career just months before Sanremo. Despite this, he emerged as the surprising victor (so much so that his own shocked reaction to his win has become something of a meme) over Il Volo, the internationally known operatic pop group, and Ultimo, a young tattooed singer who, despite his bad boy appearance, entered a ballad in the traditional Italian style. Mahmood's win came not thanks to public voting (Ultimo won that), but to the expert jury whose votes get equal weight. In a sense, some saw his win as the "elite" overruling the voice of the people, even if Sanremo's viewership tends to be older.
Matteo Salvini, Italy's deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right political party the Northern League, stirred a potential backlash on Twitter by calling into question Mahmood's Italian identity.
“#Mahmood............... meh............ The most beautiful Italian song?!?” wrote Salvini, whose preoccupation with both anti-immigration sentiment and making dumb tweets have led many to compare him to Donald Trump.
Many took the jibe as an inquest into whether Mahmood's music should be considered "Italian music," despite the fact his mother is Italian, he grew up in a suburb of Milan, and is, you know, very much Italian. The New York Times adds that shortly after, a member of Salvini's party introduced legislation to limit "foreign" music played on the radio. The head of the national broadcaster RAI, a man installed by the right-wing government, also threatened to force a change in the way the winner is selected.
Commenters worried that Salvini and his ilk could turn the controversy into cheap propaganda, but the backlash never arrived. Indeed, quite the opposite occurred.
As it turned out, young Italians loved the song. They streamed it so much when it hit Spotify that it rocketed into the streaming service's worldwide top 40 for a day. The song spent six weeks atop the Italian singles chart (the most of any single so far this year), and when Mahmood's previous EP Gioventù bruciata ("Wasted Youth") was repackaged and rereleased as a full album, it too went to number one. His Instagram follower count now exceeds 625,000, and there's little worry that he'll be a flash in the pan. He's performed the song numerous times on Italian television to crowds of enamored young fans who know every word; close-ups of their longing looks serve as proof of Mahmood's heartthob status. Even before Eurovision, he's already secured his second Italian number one with "Calipso," a collaborative track he's featured on with some of Italy's biggest rappers (think of it as their version of DJ Snake's "Taki Taki"), that might just be the song of the summer there.
Mahmood's rise in Italy could mirror that of Cardi B's and Bad Bunny's in America. He's a figure whose very identity stands in stark contrast to antiquated agendas of national identity that the ruling right-wing party pushes, but he also has the skills and charisma to transcend politics. Though Eurovision has rules against any outwardly political performance, such messaging elsewhere in the competition, during a time when right-wing anti-immigrant and Euro-skepticism forces continue to find growing power on the Continent, have emerged. The U.K.'s entry, "It's Bigger Than Us," has been interpreted by some as an anti-Brexit anthem. France's contestant, Bilal Hassani, the openly queer son of Moroccan Muslim immigrants. In response to the competition being held in Israel, Iceland has sent a pro-Palestine performance art group with a flair for BDSM.
Mahmood has acknowledged the right-wing carping directed his way. "I hear negative comments when they are constructive," he's said. "However, when they don’t make any sense, like in this case, I just ignore them.” He's also not particularly interested in labels when it comes to his nationality or sexuality (he's engaged but refuses to identify the gender of his partner). Indeed, what he most seems to be worried about is his artistry and using Eurovision as a platform for bigger success and not just brief viral fame.
"If you do something minimal and cool and unique, then I think it's a beautiful chance to show how a country can do something modern and interesting," Mahmood told the BBC of his plans for his performance.
While it's not certain that he'll win, it seems like Mahmood has already won over Italy. The only question is whether he can win over the rest of the world as well.